Many of us nod along when others extol the virtues of being a great listener, yet few of us find ways to actually do it.
Yet just about everyone we meet has a piece of wisdom, a skill, or an idea that they want to share.
Part of our trouble with listening I imagine is that we just think that our own opinions are more interesting or more urgent, or we feel like we just want to be heard first.
I’ve found a useful game for getting over this mindset.
Whenever you’re talking to someone new, just ask yourself: What golden nugget do they have to offer?
When you keep this mission in mind, it makes doing small talk with someone at a party or social gathering so much easier. You just dig around with intriguing questions until you hit a vein and open up the rich well that few people will ever have the patience to get to.
I’m not naive enough to think that everyone has some utterly profound piece of wisdom to share. Sometimes it will be something that moves or interests them, but that doesn’t really strike a chord with us.
The point of this mindset is that it gets us to a place where conversation doesn’t just become about our own pet concerns. Most of the time, if I’m honest, I’ve approached many conversations in life with the intent of doing little more than expounding my strong opinions and theories on the world: movies, relationships, books, sex, you name it, I’ll have something I want to ramble on about.
But the problem with being opinionated is that you start using any crowd as an audience, rather than as a source of enhancing your own wisdom.
This especially tends to happen to people who love learning, who tend to assume the role of always wanting to be the teacher and pass on what they know to others.
So if you want to be a joy to talk to, and actually learn from other people, here are three easy methods I’ve found for being a better listener:
1. Realise that keeping others interested is not enough
Being a good talker does not make you a good conversationalist.
A good conversationalist realizes that truly great interactions leave both people delighted.
This usually means both people get to express themselves in some way. Just understanding this changes our approach to conversations, especially if we are the type of person who tends to talk too much if given free reign.
People can often leave conversations with someone who was completely fascinating but still feel unheard because they never got a chance to feel as though they had something to contribute.
Good conversationalist realize that there is a difference between being interesting, and making others feel interesting too. Both are essential.
2. Dig further
Often people will have a default setting where they’ll jump to certain small talk questions, but it’s up to the good conversationalist to steer the conversation to and area where both people get a chance to talk about their real passions and interests.
So if your interlocutor says: “I work in interior design”
You can respond: “I’ve always found that fascinating. I’m curious: what advice would you say everyone ought to know about interior design even if they haven’t studied it?”
Or you can probe further and ask why design is important to them in the first place.
The more you dig into the WHY, the more you’re going to get to their core values and learn what drives them in the first place.
3. Tease out their story
This is a slightly different point, but often it can be effective to let someone explain how they came to be where they are now.
So if someone said: “I’m a professional gardener”.
You can say “How did you come to do that? Is that something you always wanted to do when you were younger?”
Questions like this lead people to more reflective places and let them open up in a way that they wouldn’t usually when talking about their career.
It’s almost like a chat show question, and everyone loves being given permission to share their own story when they feel like they are in the presence of someone who cares enough to listen.
Now of course, I know this won’t always lead you to the most fascinating conversations. Sometimes you’ll be with a person who spins a yarn that you could have merrily gone about your entire life without ever hearing in the first place.
But we all need the skills of a good listener.
Listening is what takes us out of our own self-centered mindset. It’s what lets us learn from people when we genuinely approach them in a spirit of humility and with the mind that there are always more nuggets of wisdom to find. And sometimes listening is just good manners. It stops us being pompous and wrapped up in our own thoughts.
Anyway, I’ve said way too much already. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and I’ll do my best to respond (or just listen).
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Stephen Hussey helped co-write the Get The Guy book and is a wealth of knowledge on dating and relationships.